Politics Are Not All of Life

There are people who, upon learning that I live in Hungary, immediately ask, “What do you think about its turn toward the right?” I then have to explain that the country is not monolithic, that there is much more to it than Orbán, and that people like Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the opposition’s potential candidates for the next national election, stands for something markedly different from him. But I would go even farther and say that politics are not all of life, that you don’t have to get riled up over politics to live thoughtfully and conscientiously, and that you can find meaning and relative freedom (whatever freedom is—Gyula Jenei has a remarkable new poem on this topic) in other things, without being any more escapist or selfish than most humans out there. Granted, politics cover many areas of life and involve most of us at some point, whether we like it or not. But even so, we don’t have to get caught up in them beyond what is necessary or in our nature. Nor do they make us virtuous.

“But look at what’s happening around you!” people will yell. Yes, but there are many things happening around me. Only some of them could be called political. The over-politicization of life is a prison in itself. Many writers and others have resisted the pressure to turn everything into a political statement, to go around with banners and slogans.

In the thirty or so years since I first read Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I have often returned in my mind to this passage (in Part 2, Chapter 2, about Karel’s mother, here in the translation of Michael Henry Heim):

But the defect in her sight seemed to explain something much more basic: what was large for them was small for her, what were stones for them were houses for her.

To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly. One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in the garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective—a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Kundera does not make this the last word; this is still close to the beginning, with much to follow. Nor is Karel sure that his mother is right; he just realizes that the answer is not as simple as he had supposed.

That is what I have learned over time, too. This does not mean that politics should be ignored, or that it’s entirely possible to do so. There are some issues, such as Covid, hunger, and global warming, that can only be addressed by countries and individuals together, through concerted work and lucid language. In that sense they are political. There are also times in our daily lives when we have to take action on behalf of a person or principle. That, too, could be considered political. And we all have political duties of one kind or another, at one level or another, from voting to taking part in work meetings. (Workplaces have their own political systems.)

Nor do we have to be uniformly political or apolitical throughout our lives; we go through changes in this regard. I cared intensely about politics, as usually understood, in my late teens and early twenties. After that, less so. I came to distrust and resist the pressure to be political on other people’s terms. Even more than that, I came to dislike the judgments that went along with such pressure. But I have been outspoken on education and other issues, over many years, and have received both praise and flack for this.

What do people know about each other, really? Someone who seems apolitical may actually be doing more for others, and more to improve the surroundings, than someone who jumps into every political argument. Or ther reverse could be true. It is not always obvious, and our judgments are often based on meager information.

There’s a need for people who take up political causes, make political arguments, run for office. But if everyone were doing that, or if those doing it all did it in the same way, we’d end up with a dreary and dangerous world. People have different inclinations, different things that delight and intrigue and trouble them; all these things have a place, as long as they do not harm others. So let there be room in life for the ferns at the top of this post, for the poems being read at festivals this summer, for the things that are hard to say, for the struggle, late at night, with a math problem, or for the rush of a musical idea.

Those Sixteen Measures

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It was in graduate school that I fell in love with Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění). I read it again and again, and then later, over the years, returned to the book and my favorite passages in it. This (and everything leading up to it) is my favorite passage of all:

It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and like me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved–those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.

The narrator is speaking of Beethoven’s Opus 111, the last of his piano sonatas. I listened to this piece over and over as a high school student, listened to again over the years, and am returning to it now. It breaks ground no matter where you are in your musical and life experience and how many times you have listened to it.

Loss takes its own form, direction, and time. The world tells you to set goals; you go around and around. The world tells you to move on; you don’t. But then you realize that the world isn’t telling you anything. You have to figure out for yourself what to make of it all and what to do.

The lingering and the circling have their own reasons. They don’t just repeat themselves haplessly. They have variations and digressions. Over time you start to see things in a new way, or at least you start to know what it was you were seeing.

We usually grieve more than one thing at once: along with a person, a part of ourselves, a part of the world, a way of life, a belief in something. A piece of existence falls away forever; with that piece, a person close to us, or someone important to us, and in that person, cavern after cavern, light after light. This is true even if the person does not die. A lost friendship, a breakup, a falling out can bring up this same grief.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” comes to mind:

Spring and Fall

                         to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Marcell Bajnai’s new song “Dühöngő” (“Raging”) has something to do with all of this. It circles around and around a loss, but always in a different way, and the loss takes on different forms and meanings each time. It could be a loss of a person, a loss of faith, or a loss of something in the self, or all of these combined. The song’s refrain has several variations, one of which is this:

nem hibák, csak végzetek,
feltámadás után halni meg
ordító némaság,
hitetlen, dühöngő gyávaság

(Approximately: “Not mistakes, just destinies, to die after resurrection, roaring silence, faithless, raging cowardice.”)

 

The words play against the other words in the song; variation plays against variation. Images and possibilities intertwine with the melody. When I listen to it, I change a little bit.

Grief of this kind is not the most accepted emotion, or mixture of emotions, in the world, nor can it be laid out in flat prose. It requires art and is one of the reasons for art. This very blog post points to art again and again. Without art, we would be limited to the slogan, the goal, the game plan–all those things that urge certainty of action. Those are essential too. I would not have my new apartment without a series of actions and words. But those certainties are limited by the very language that expresses them. There, words serve a specific purpose and are no longer needed, except for the record, once the purpose is accomplished. I do not find myself rereading contracts and manuals, except to find specific information in them.

But art brings you back to find more–in the work, in yourself, in the world. Grief is a plunge into the hidden regions of life–lonely and frightening at first, but then surprising, then brilliant, then so much at once that you have to lay it out in time, in form, and pass through its infinite possibilities.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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